Flint is a sad metaphor for something

australia-water-stampIf one were looking for an apt metaphor to reflect the state of modern America, which would you choose: the surprising success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, or the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of Flint Michigan? I’d opt for the latter. Yes, the Trump candidacy is perhaps a milestone of something or other in recent politics, but America has always had political hucksters, and some of them have done quite well. This is a country that at one point had an important “Know-Nothing” political party in the 1840s and 1850s (a central plank of which was fierce opposition to immigration, interestingly enough.) So while the sakes might be higher these days—Mr Trump looks like he has a real shot at the Republican Presidential nomination, and a surprising number of voters appear to be uninformed, or misinformed, about lots of stuff—I would still argue that this is one of the swings in American politics that one sees from time to time.

Flint is another story entirely.

To recap—the Michigan legislature, in its wisdom, gave itself (and the governor) the power to declare local governments incapable of solving their own problems. Instead, the governor (in this case, a Republican) has the ability to appoint an Emergency Master to run a city’s finances. Detroit was the excuse for this nonsense, but it turns out that simply abandoning Detroit after stripping it of financial powers wasn’t enough for these guys. A similar move was made in Flint, the subject of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, about the industrial hollowing out of the Flint economy by, at the time, General Motors, the city’s largest employer. It’s sobering to realize that Moore’s film is now 27 years old, and everything that has followed has lived up to, or probably exceeded, Moore’s worst case concerns.

Anyway, the Emergency Master of Flint—a Republican appointee of Republican Governor Rick Snyder (who has one of the more remarkable blow-dry haircuts you will ever see) decided that the City of Flint was spending too much on its water. So in April 2014 it switched its water source from Lake Huron to the local Flint River. Not surprisingly, results were what you would expect in a movie on the SyFy channel before the monsters start showing up:

Right away, children and residents got sick from drinking the water, even though the city managers assured them it was safe. By August, the water tested positive for E-coli and by September 2014, citizens had been advised to boil their water before drinking it by local officials.
In January 2015, residents were lining up daily to get free bottled water and the city was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The number of children testing positive for elevated levels of lead had skyrocketed since the switch from Lake Huron. By April 2015 city officials were demanding that the water source be changed back but had no power to make it happen. State officials, led by Governor Snyder, dragged their feet and did not take the unfolding disaster seriously. It got worse.
By July 2015, the governor’s office still did nothing substantial to deliver safe drinking water to the citizens in the city. Children continued to suffer. It was only just recently, after months of delay and failed leadership, and calls from citizens for the arrest and indictment of Governor Snyder, that the Snyder administration finally declared a state of emergency.

Well. There are, of course, multiple issues here—is it appropriate to over-ride local control in this way? This issue has been a recurring one in American history, and what we’re seeing now, economic austerity, has multiple roots. The finances of these cities are bad, with little prospect for near term improvement. So the predictable response from those who preach austerity is to call for more. And in this case, they were in a position to enforce it.
But to do so, and to continue this practice in the face of clear scientific evidence that Flint River water, on any number of levels, is unsafe to drink, speaks of something much more nefarious. We have a mild version of austerity here in the UK, too, but we’re clearly amateurs compared to what Republicans apparently envision. Are these people unaware of the issues surrounding lead poisoning? Or of the evidence suggesting that high lead exposure in childhood is correlated with higher crime levels? Can they really be that ignorant? That beggars belief. But the alternative is clearly worse—they did this in spite of knowing what these effects would be. It’s an experiment in mass poising of a populace, and you have to wonder whether there’s anyone collecting the data for longer term trend analysis. It’s virtually impossible to say whether this was intentional, but at this point nothing would surprise me.

So we now have a situation where an entire political party has declared the notion of “the general welfare” of the population as inoperative. We know, for example, that the attempts to get the governor and Michigan legislators to deal with Flint were met not only with denial, but outright hostility. It’s not an accident, presumably, that just this past week the Republican House of Representatives passed legislation that, if signed, would gut Obama’s Clean Water Rule and other regulations. America is now a country where state and local governments, and a significant portion of the federal government, have basically declared war on some groups of its citizens—and not the ones that the Bundy brothers think.

These guys make Trump look good. Maybe that’s why he’s winning.

The above postage stamp is a stamp issued by Australia to celebrate the importance of clean water. The US has nothing comparable.

4 replies »

  1. The emergency city manager who made the decision to switch water sources in Flint is Darnell Earley and he is definitely not a republican. That decision was based on perceived economic necessity as he tried to guide Flint out of insolvency. A horrible decision in retrospect but there was nothing malevolent about it.

    He’s now chief of the Detroit Public School system and hopefully does a better job there.
    Must we politicize everything, and if the answer is yes then couldn’t we at least do a little fact checking before grabbing torches and pitch forks?

  2. You’re right, Earley is not a Republican–I mis-spoke. I could claim it’s an diting error, but I just got that wrong. But he’s a Republican appointee. And yes, there are times when it is relevant to politicize what’s going on–especially since no one, including Earley, will accept any responsibility for this, other than in a totally vacuous way. And in fact, it’s also the case that the decision had been made before he was even appointed, so while he makes a convenient target, there’s plenty of blame to go around here. As far as the Detroit Public Schools go, how’s that working out? See here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/us/crumbling-destitute-schools-threaten-detroits-recovery.html?mtrref=query.nytimes.com&gwh=DB98DAEF7431D7F03EC4C78230A5DE68&gwt=pay
    Earley doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of guy who will be able to help the situation, but perhaps I will be surprised–his hands, however, are tied in any number of ways, by design.

    And as far as malevolence goes, Earley doesn’t strike me as the problem, although I do wonder why he didn’t reverse himself when the problems first appeared, or even raise a question with the people who first made the decision–was the quality of Flint River water completely unknown at the time? I suspect not. In fact, in summer 2014 the city was already recommending that residents boil their water, and in October GM actually stopped using that water because it was rusting parts. See the time line here: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/timeline-water-crisis-flint-michigan-36331514

    More broadly, it’s the people who created the situation which so drastically limited his options that I raise questions about–the people who control the Michigan legislature. Republicans have controlled the state senate since 1984; and the house since 1999 (except for the 2007-2001 period. I’ll just leave it at that.

    The fiction that crumbling urban infrastructure can be solved by fiscal stringency is just that–a convenient political fiction, and politically, let’s face it–you can try to be as bi-partisan as you want, but it’s predominantly a Republican fiction. I make no apologies for pointing this out.